4th of July: tips and tricks to help your dog get through the holiday

The 4th of July is almost upon us. Did you know that more dogs go missing on the 4th of July than any other day of the year?! The busiest day of the year at animal shelters across the country is July 5th. Studies show that upwards of 50% of dogs express fearful behaviors in the face of loud noises.

So, what can you do to help your dog navigate the 4th of July holiday?

Is my dog scared?

The first question we need to ask ourselves is this . . . Is my dog scared? Dogs who are afraid or stressed will exhibit some, or all, of the following body language cues:

  • Pinned back ears
  • Crouching or hiding
  • Clinginess
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Whale eye (whites of the eyes are showing)
  • Whining or barking
  • Pacing
  • Panting
  • Yawning
  • Lip or nose licking
  • Drooling
  • Urinating or defecating
  • Vomiting

Why is my dog afraid of loud noises?

The first thing to consider is that so many more individuals than just your scared pup are sensitive to loud noises such as fireworks and thunder . . . combat veterans, babies, autistic children, dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, horses, sheep, zoo animals, birds and other wildlife . . .

We all have a startle reflex that is activated by loud noises. Some of us have nervous systems that are more sensitive to these types of stimuli. If we know what is making that noise or it is expected, we can often regulate our reaction. But, dogs don’t have a gmail calendar or a weather app, so these phenomenon can take them by surprise and trigger their “fight or flight’ response.

Any type of past trauma associated with loud noises (e.g., your puppy was scared by his first fireworks experience, a veteran who experienced combat, etc.) will add to the severity of the reaction. In some cases, something as simple as an oven timer, a smoke alarm, a single firecracker bang or a dropped pan can send an individual into a panic attack – so imagine how a full 4th of July fireworks display is going to affect them.

Moreover, dogs and other animals find loud noises to not only be aversive, but painful as well. For example, while humans are not able to detect sounds above 20,000Hz, dogs can hear up to 60,000Hz. Some fireworks emit sounds above the level of human hearing, but dogs are able to detect those sounds.

In addition, we must consider the effect of trigger stacking on our dogs during the week leading up to the 4th of July. Trigger stacking is a phenomenon where a combination of multiple stressors, some might be quiet minor, occur over a short period of time and culminate in an extreme reaction.  If your dog is hearing a firework or two a couple of times each day for the week leading up to the 4th of July, he may already be trigger stacked before a single firecracker is lit on July 4th. By the time that the main fireworks display begins, your dog is way beyond his threshold.

Every individual has a threshold beyond which they will have a reaction. Each time an individual encounters a stressor, a certain amount of cortisol (a stress hormone) is released. Different stressors will create different amounts of cortisol in different individuals. If an individual event creates enough cortisol to cross the reactivity threshold, the individual will react. Stressors can also have an additive effect. It takes 5 to 8 hours for cortisol to dissipate from the blood stream. If an additional stressor occurs within that 5-8 hour window, the cortisol that is released from the second event is added to the cortisol still in the system from the first event . . . bringing the total level closer to threshold. So, if we encounter multiple stressors within a short period of time, they will have an additive effect and can cause the individual to go over threshold and have a reaction.

From my Trigger Stacking blog

Microchips and Identification

Be sure that your dog is never without some form of identification. Check that his name tag has your current contact information. Double check your microchip provider website to be sure that 1) you are listed as your dog’s owner and 2) your contact information is up to date. If your dog (or other pet) is not microchipped, I strongly recommend having that done as soon as possible. Dogs can slip out of their collar/harness if they panic and try to run away. If you dog’s collar is caught on something, the tags can be torn away. Simply put, microchips work!

A study of more than 7,700 stray animals at animal shelters showed that dogs without microchips were returned to their owners 21.9% of the time, whereas microchipped dogs were returned to their owners 52.2% of the time. Cats without microchips were reunited with their owners only 1.8% of the time, whereas microchipped cats went back home 38.5% of the time. (Lord et al, JAVMA, July 15, 2009) For microchipped animals that weren’t returned to their owners, most of the time it was due to incorrect owner information (or no owner information) in the microchip registry database – so don’t forget to register and keep your information updated.

American Veterinary Medical Association on Microchips

Other collar options are the GPS collars and attachments that allow you to track your dog’s whereabouts. Beware, however, that the cheaper models often do not live up to the range that is advertised. I have seen lost dogs with trackers that were supposed to work within 100 yards that didn’t actually ping the owner’s phone until the dog was less than 20 feet away.

Just in case you need to post lost dog flyers, always have current photos of your dog on hand. Take good shots from multiple angles to include any identifying markings, scars, etc. . . . close-ups and/or full body shots. If you have your dog clipped, have photos with both long coat and short coat – dogs often look very different before and after grooming!

Safe Confinement

  • Double check gates to be sure that they are securely latched BEFORE letting your dog out of the house.
  • Add a second layer of safety and take your dog out in the yard on a leash or long line. Dogs can be unbelievably agile and athletic fence jumpers when they are in a blind panic.
  • Be sure that your doors and windows are secured latched. A window screen is not going to hold a dog who is panicking and trying to escape.
  • Don’t leave your dog unattended in your yard – scared dogs may run through invisible fences, break tethers, climb or jump fences or dig their way out of yards.
  • Don’t take your pup to a fireworks display – leave him safe at home.
  • If you are hosting a party at your home, put your pup in his crate, in a locked room for the evening. There is no reason to chance someone leaving a door open or, worse yet, someone spooking your already frightened dog and getting bit.
Double leashing for an added layer of safety – attach 1 leash to the dog’s harness and 1 leash to the dog’s collar.

Safe Space

Your dog may already have a safe space – a spot in the basement, his crate, a particular bed or dog bed, under furniture, in a closet, etc. If not, you can create a safe space. The following are tips on how to create a safe space or enhance your dog’s current space.

Location

Find a quiet location where outside noises will be muffled. A location where you can block the flashes and lights from fireworks explosions is best – e.g., basement, a room/closet with no windows, a room with room darkening curtains, etc. can all be good options. If your dog likes his crate, you can cover it with a blanket that will help dampen sound as well as darken the space.

Be sure that your dog has access to plenty of clean water in his safe space. Panting or drooling will cause a dog to dehydrate quickly.

Background Noise

Adding some kind of white noise and/or soothing noise will add to the peaceful atmosphere that you are trying to create for your dog.

  • Box Fan
  • Bathroom fan
  • White noise machine
  • Radio turned to classical, country or reggae music
  • Youtube has several tracks with calming music playing in a 8-15 hour loop

Enrichment and/or Comfort Items

Enrichment activities

Licking . . .

Chewing . . .

Sniffing . . .

. . . 3 things that help calm a dog.

Give your dog her favorite type of chew, a stuffed Kong or Topple type of toy or some type of licki mat activity.

Comfort items

Once you have your dog’s safe space set up, fill it with items that your dog finds comforting. Does your dog have a favorite stuffy or blanket? Add an old t-shirt or sweatshirt that you have been wearing. Your dog will find your scent comforting.

Calming Aids

There are a lot of options on the market for calming products:

Thundershirt

Thundershirts® work on the same principle as swaddling a baby or giving a hug. The pressure causes the release of oxytocin and/or endorphins that have a calming effect.

You may have heard of Adaptil®. This is a pheromone product that mimics the pheromones produced by nursing mother dogs and have a calming effect on her puppies. Adaptil® comes in wall diffusers, sprays or collar form. It has been shown to have a calming effect on some dogs, so it is definitely something to try.

There are many types of nutraceutical products that purport to act as calming agents. A nutraceutical is a supplement or food additive. These products are not regulated by the FDA, so they are a “buyer beware” type of product. You must do your research to determine if the product you have purchased contains the ingredients on the label. They can also be extremely expensive. There is anecdotal evidence that products such as; July 3rd, Rescue Remedy, calming chews, cbd oil, etc., do calm dogs BUT there is little to no scientific evidence to back up these claims. I am not saying that they won’t work for your dog – just be aware.

The other option, and the one that I would highly recommend looking into TODAY, is some type of pharmaceutical prescribed by your veterinarian. Pharmaceuticals can be used as a situational calming medications that will enable your dog to cope with his noise phobia. There are many different types of situational medications and your vet will help you choose the one that is right for your pet. If you do go this route, be sure that you follow the directions for dosage and administration on the bottle. Some of these drugs need a 1- to 2-hour onboarding window before they will take effect – meaning that if the fireworks show starts at 9pm, you will need to give the medication at 7 or 8pm. Others, however, take effect much faster. The length of effectiveness also varies, so be aware of this so that you are re-dosing properly.

Comforting your dog

Contrary to what you may have heard or read, you cannot reinforce fear. So, by all means, go ahead and cuddle your dog if he is asking for comfort.

Never punish your dog for being afraid or try to force/flood them into just “getting used to it”.

It is true that you can make your dog more afraid than he already is, by doing something yourself that scares him, by forcing him into situations that scare him already or by being afraid yourself. Emotions are contagious, so if you want your dog to be afraid of thunder, then be afraid yourself! But you’re not going to make him more afraid of storms if you stroke his head and tell him it’s going to be okay.

Dr. Patricia McConnell

Prepping for the 4th of July

  • If you will be giving medication, be sure that you have your dog’s prescription(s) filled and ready to go.
  • Follow the directions to be sure that you are administering any medications or supplements correctly and in a timely fashion. You don’t want to realize 5 minutes before the big fireworks display is set to begin that you should have given your dog his medication 2 hours ago.
  • Fill and freeze your enrichment activities ahead of time.
  • Make sure that your dog’s safe space is set up and ready to use.
  • Take your dog out early in the day for some physical exercise.
  • Double leash your dog anytime you are outside your house or fenced yard. You can use two leashes (or a double-ended leash) and hook one leash to your dog’s harness and the other to his collar. That way, if a he hears an early firework and backs out of one, he is still attached to you by the other.
  • Make sure to take your pup out for a potty break before fireworks begin as he may not want to go out afterwards.
  • For highly fearful dogs who refuse to go outside during the day, you can create a doggie litter box that you can set up in your garage, mudroom or basement.

What about July 6th . . . and 7th . . . and 8th . . .

Where am I going with this? Remember trigger stacking? Well, If your dog was trigger stacked and stressed out in the days leading up to the 4th of July, how do you think he feels in the day or two that follow that big 4th of July fireworks display?!?

Remember, cortisol takes time to clear out of your dog’s system AND additional stressors will have an additive effect on your dog’s blood cortisol levels. Also keep in mind that your neighbors are going to continue to light off a firework or two in the days after the 4th. Each time a firework goes off, or a car backfires, or you drop a book, or there is a thunderstorm, your dog is going to continue to trigger stack. So what . . . well, if you have a reactive dog or a fearful dog, remember that trigger stacking can make all of their behavior issues worse . . . to the point of an increased incidence of aggressive behaviors and bite incidents during this time period. I recommend that you continue to follow the “day of” instructions for the first few days after the 4th. It is better to be safe than sorry.

Training for Next Year

What do you need to get started so you are ready to the NEXT 4th of July?

  • A recording of fireworks (or other scary sound like thunder, loud trucks, etc) with music and one without
  • Plenty of high value treats or high value toy
  • Time, Patience and plenty of Enthusiasm

You can purchase sound recordings created specifically for desensitizing dogs to noises. iCalmPet has CDs that combine classical music with thunderstorms, fireworks or city sounds. You can find similar tracks on YouTube as well – or you can simply record the sounds yourself.

Training Process

The music and sound tracks are created to present the noises quietly at first, then progress to simulate noises that are closer and closer to you and with smaller and smaller intervals between. The idea is to play these tapes at the easiest level and at a volume low enough that it appears that your dog does not even notice. As you see your dog easily coping at the current level, you are ready to increase volume and/or move to a more difficult track.

This is all that some dogs will need. Many others, however, will need a bit more help making positive associations with loud noises. This is where your recording of just loud noises (no music) will come into play.

  1. Start at a very low volume. We want to start where the dog is just noticing the sound. Play the sound and feed your dog a high value treat or reward with a game of tug, etc. Repeat this several times.
  2. Let’s put a label on it. You can call the loud noise anything you choose, but I would recommend choosing a label that you will remember to use for every loud noise. For example, if you choose “Boom”, then any and every loud noise is now “Boom”. We are trying to generalize the label to mean that any loud noise is a “Boom” that predicts good stuff.
  3. Now the steps become: Sound . . . Boom . . . Feed Treat and Celebrate. Repeat this several times.
  4. Keep treats on you during training so that you are ready if the real deal happens unexpectedly!
  5. Do several repetitions of Step 3 each day.
  6. As your dog becomes more comfortable, you can begin to increase the volume of the sound.
  7. You should also begin to vary the reward and location of the reward.
  8. The Final Sequence: Noise . . . Boom . . . run to the treat cupboard/refrigerator . . . Feed Treat or Play & Celebrate Enthusiastically.
  9. Now you are ready for the real thing.

NOTE: Order is important! Be sure that your dog hears the noise BEFORE you label it and feed treats. If, for example, you see a flash of lightning and begin feeding before you hear the thunder, you risk reversing the association. Instead of seeing noises (thunder) as predicting good things (treats), your dog instead associates treats as predicting scary noises are about to follow.

Teaching positive associations with loud noises is pretty straight forward when it comes to noises like trucks, dropping pots/pans, etc. It is impossible, however, to simulate atmospheric changes and odors that accompany fireworks and thunder. Large fireworks are accompanied by sound, flashes of light and burning smells. Whereas thunder is preceded by changes in barometric pressure and humidity that dogs detect, as well as their keen ability to smell rain and hear thunder long before we are able to do so. This process can take a long time with these types of noises. So, the moral of the story is . . . start today so that you and your dog are ready for NEXT year!

Kerrie Hoar, CPDT-KA, IAABC-ADT, LFDM-T/L, FFCP
Kerrie Hoar, CPDT-KA, IAABC-ADT, LFDM-T/L, FFCP

Kerrie Hoar has a master’s degree in Biology and is a certified professional dog trainer and licensed family dog mediator. She owns Crimson Hound, LLC dog training in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Trigger Stacking

I am afraid of snakes (ophidiophobia).  The biologist in me finds snakes fascinating; however, when I encounter one, my emotions take over. I live close to a nice trail system looping through a marsh that is home to tons of wildlife – including a variety of snakes. Fortunately for me, I don’t see snakes very often, but ….

Imagine if you will . . .

One sunny afternoon, my husband and I decide to take the dogs for a long relaxing walk through the marsh.  Just as we start up the trail, I see a snake.  I jump and give a small shout . . . but, I haven’t seen a snake in the marsh in such a long time, so let’s soldier on and not let it ruin the walk.  

Just a few hundred yards farther down the trail, I think I see another snake. No! However, as we get closer, I realize that it’s just a stick. Phew! We continue walking, but I find myself spending more and more time scanning for snakes and less and less time enjoying the scenery.  

A little way beyond the halfway point of our loop, there is a rocky area that looks like a perfect spot for a snake to sun itself.  I approach with my eyes riveted to the rocks and, sure enough, there is a snake – a little snake, but still a snake.  Ugh!  Now I am really feeling the stress.  Not only do I have to walk past that snake, but I am sure there are others hiding amongst the rocks.  

What now? While I could turn around, it will take longer to go back than it will to just keep going.  So here I am – feeling panicky and stuck.  Why didn’t I just turn around when I saw that first snake?!  

With no other optional this point, I continue on, but what started as a nice relaxing walk has turned into a forced march. I am no longer enjoying myself. Instead, I am agitated and on high alert, scanning all around me and imagining the worst.  As a consequence, I find myself walking faster and faster to just out of the marsh as quickly as possible.

When my husband innocently asks me to slow down a bit, I lose it.  I mean, I really lose it. To everyone’s surprise, including my own, I have turned into a raving maniac, yelling at him for even suggesting that we take the walk in the first place. The tears are close to surfacing . . . there is still a couple hundred feet of trail and there are sure to be more snakes.

YIKES!! Where did the rational adult go?  You know, the one who KNOWS that a little garter snake is not going to kill her . . . the one who finds snake anatomy absolutely fascinating . . . the one who has never even had a bad encounter with a snake to create such an irrational fear . . . the one who keeps saying that she just needs to get over this fear of snakes . . .  

Reason and common sense clearly lost the battle to fear and panic . . . and the fight or flight response took over. Fear and anxiety function in a very similar fashion in the canine brain.  So, if you will, take a moment to insert a dog afraid of other dogs into this story and I think you can imagine how what started out as a relaxing walk could quickly turn into a nightmare for your dog.

While you most surely understand this type of phobia, you may be wondering something … why was it the innocent comment that sent me over the edge – and NOT the sight of the first or the second snake?  

The answer is TRIGGER STACKING.


What is trigger stacking?  

Trigger stacking is a phenomenon where a combination of multiple stressors, some might be quiet minor, occur over a short period of time and culminate in an extreme reaction. 

Every individual has a threshold beyond which they will have a reaction. Each time an individual encounters a stressor, a certain amount of cortisol (a stress hormone) is released. Different stressors will create different amounts of cortisol in different individuals. If an individual event creates enough cortisol to cross the reactivity threshold, the individual will react. Stressors can also have an additive effect. It takes 5 to 8 hours for cortisol to dissipate from the blood stream. If an additional stressor occurs within that 5-8 hour window, the cortisol that is released from the second event is added to the cortisol still in the system from the first event . . . bringing the total level closer to threshold. So, if we encounter multiple stressors within a short period of time, they will have an additive effect and can cause the individual to go over threshold and have a reaction.


How does trigger stacking affect fearful or reactive dogs?

We often talk about threshold when working with dogs who are overly sensitive and vigilant about their environment . . . specifically we talk about the importance of keeping them under threshold. Why? Because when these dogs go over threshold, they respond with explosive actions and lose all sense of reason, along with the ability to think. They cannot learn when they are in this kind of mindset.

Trigger stacking can be a major concern with these dogs. Let’s look at an example that will demonstrate how multiple stressors can affect a sensitive dog.

Scruffy and his owner are out for a walk and come upon a woman pushing a baby stroller – something that is completely new to Scruffy.  As the stroller passes by, Scruffy’s owner notices that Scruffy is yawning and ducking his head away from the stroller.  He can’t possibly be tired ….

A few blocks later, a loose dog runs out of his yard and starts barking at Scruffy. Scruffy cowers, moves behind his owner and starts licking his lips. The loose dog’s owner calls him away. Since Scruffy didn’t growl or bark at the loose dog, his owner assumes that it wasn’t a big deal, so they continue on their walk.  

While Scruffy’s owner is at work, a pollster stops by the house, rings the bell and leaves a flyer on the door. Later, a delivery person rings the bell a couple of times and then leaves a package on the front step. Scruffy barks and growls each time the doorbell rings.

After work, the owner decides to take Scruffy out for another walk since he has been cooped in the house up all day.   As they walk past the next door neighbor’s house, their dog walks up to the fence.  Suddenly, Scruffy explodes – barking and lunging at the dog.  The owner is very upset and yells at Scruffy as he drags him away. “What the heck is wrong with you?! You see that dog every day! You never act like that!”  


Trigger Stacking and the Ladder of Aggression

The graphic below shows the way that canine body language advances from very subtle gestures to overly overt actions as a dog becomes more and more stressed and uncomfortable . . . often culminating in a bite if the stressor is not removed.

In addition to influencing how your dog reacts to stressors that he may encounter on a walk, trigger stacking is all too often the impetus behind a dog bite.  Dogs do not bite “out of the blue”.  Though the people involved may not recognize it, there is always a reason behind a bite.  Dog bites are very often the result of someone not recognizing the body language that is indicative of the dog’s level of distress . . . until the dog advances to the level of using very overt signals such as barking, growing, snarling, snapping and biting.

Let’s take a look at another example. Jane called a dog trainer, clearly in distress. Her Chihuahua, Joey had just bitten her. According to Jane, she was simply trying to wipe off Joey’s paw when he growled and snapped at her. The bite caught her forearm and left a red mark. Jane could not understand why this happened since she wipes off Joey’s paws all the time. The bite just came “out of the blue”. During their first session, the trainer asked Jane to tell her everything she could remember about what Joey’s day looked like leading up to the bite. See if you can you recognize some of the signals that indicate that Joey was experiencing trigger stacking.

  • Joey had a veterinary appointment first thing in the morning. He doesn’t really like riding in the car, but since he is a little dog, Jane just lifts him up and pops him into the car.  He sat still and pouted all the way to the vet – never giving Jane any eye contact.
  • At the veterinarian’s office, Joey was faced with all of the sites and strong medicinal scents of the receiving area and crouched down in a corner. When they got to the exam room, Joey hid under a chair. He had his ears back and wouldn’t look at Jane.
  • Joey’s vet was booked, so he saw a new vet and vet tech.  He wouldn’t come out from under the chair, so Jane had to reach in and grab him. Since Joey wouldn’t sit still, the vet tech had to restrain him.
  • After a physical exam during which his teeth, ears and eyes were checked and his temperature was taken, Joey got a couple of vaccinations.  
  • While they were in the office, it had started to rain. As Jane and Joey ran across the parking lot to their car, a big dog in another car barked and surprised them both. 
  • Jane scooped Joey up and quickly popped him into the car before they both got soaked.
  • On the way home, Jane stopped off at a store. She had to leave Joey in the car – something he hates. But the weather was nice and cool and she just needed a couple of items, so he would be fine.
  • Joey started barking when Jane got out of the car and she could still hear him as she entered the store. When she came out, she could hear Joey barking as she approached the car. He was SO excited to see her. Silly boy, she was only gone for a few minutes.
  • On the way home, a car pulled out in front of Jane, she had to slam on the brakes. Joey slid off the seat, and then decided to just stay curled up on the floor.
  • When Jane and Joey arrived home, Joey walked through a couple of puddles on the way into the house. When they got inside, Jane set her bags down and grabbed a towel. She leaned over and took Joey’s leash off.
  • When she picked up his front paws to dry them off, Joey gave a bit of a growl and lifted his lip, but he does that sometimes so she kept going. When she grabbed his back leg to start drying his paw, Joey growled, spun around and nipped her arm.

Can you see all of these little triggers slowly adding up and how Joey was giving subtle signals throughout the morning in an attempt to tell Jane that he was feeling uncomfortable and stressed? This is a perfect example of how we humans miss the subtle communications that tell us when our dog is becoming increasingly stressed . . . and, how these stressors can have an additive effect on the dog. None of these stressors in and of itself was enough to cause a bite, but as they continued to stack, they moved Joey up the ladder of aggression. Unfortunately, we too often see only the end result and view it as a gross overreaction to a tiny incident.


What can we do to help our dogs?

  •  When Scruffy yawned as they passed the baby stroller and licked his lips when facing the loose dog, he was trying to tell his owner that he was uncomfortable with the situation.  Be sure that you know how to recognize even the very subtle signs of stress in your dog. My blog, Dog Body Language:  How to Speak Dog, is a great place to start.  If you would like to take a deeper dive, check out my Canine Body Language for Pet Parents webinar.  Norwegian dog trainer, Turid Rugaas, wrote a fantastic book on the subtleties of canine body language – On Talking Terms with Dogs:  Calming Signals , Lili Chin has a very informative little book called Doggie Language that is filled with graphics and Tricia Hollingshead’s Listen to Me is filled with color photos and fantastic information . . .
  • Mediate the intensity of the situation by controlling duration and distance with respect to your dog’s triggers. If you think that your dog might be getting trigger stacked, you can prevent outbursts by maximizing distance from triggers on your walk, go to a quiet place for a sniffari or even skip the walk and do some trick training, nosework or even a scatter feed in the yard instead.
  • Keep a journal of events that may be triggering to your dog and mediate the intensity of your dog’s encounters with his triggers in order to prevent over-threshold reactions and trigger stacking.

    Possible triggering events to be aware of:
    • Children
    • People ringing the doorbell
    • Grooming, nail clipping or other types of husbandry
    • A trip to the vet
    • A new object – a stroller, wheelchair, holiday decoration, etc.
    • A new location 
    • A familiar location that has changed – an empty park may be full of people, a change in season or weather has changed a familiar landscape
    • A car ride
    • Other dogs or people when out on a walk
    • A new pet in the home
    • Visitors in the home
    • Losing a member of the household – moves/is out of town; a pet/person passed away
    • A pet sitter or boarding
    • Any change to his normal routine
    • Pain or illness
    • Time of day – light and shadows can effect visibility
    • Loud noises – construction; thunder; fireworks; car backfiring
  • Don’t push your dog’s boundaries until he is ready.  If he is stressed by an event, take extra care with other possible triggers.   Decrease intensity and duration as much as possible and increase distance as much as possible.  There will be better days for reactivity training.  Right now, your priority is self-care for your dog’s mental health.
  • If you and/or your dog are struggling, contact a certified professional dog trainer whose training philosophy is grounded in positive reinforcement to help.
Kerrie Hoar, M.S., CCPDT-KA, IAABC-ADT, FDM, FFCP
Kerrie Hoar, M.S., CCPDT-KA, IAABC-ADT, FDM, FFCP

Kerrie Hoar has a master’s degree in Biology and is a certified professional dog trainer and family dog mediator. She owns Crimson Hound, LLC dog training in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Dog Body Language: How to Speak Dog

Canine Body Language

“The bite came out of the blue.”

The truth is … our dogs are speaking and they are begging us to listen to them. Unfortunately, too many of us do not understand the subtle signals that make up dog body language. When we don’t see, or if we choose to ignore, our dogs’ subtle signals, they have no choice but to speak louder through growls, barks, snarls … and even bites.

Growls are good!

A growl is just your dog’s vocal way to tell you that he is uncomfortable and would like you to please stop doing what you are doing …

  • “I get anxious when you restrain me. Please stop hugging me.”
  • “It hurts when you pull on my matted fur. Please stop brushing me.”
  • “I don’t want to get in the car, it’s scary. Please stop forcing me.”
  • “I have arthritis and I hurt. Please stop petting my leg.”
  • “I just want to enjoy my dinner. Please stop sticking your hand in my bowl.”

We have to stop thinking of dogs as our own little furry puppets that must be happy no matter what we choose to do to them. Dogs are sentient beings that feel grumpy, scared, tired, etc. We need to respect those feelings and give our dogs the grace to choose to tell us “Not right now, please.”

A growl is not a personal attack on you …

… please don’t take it as such. How many times have you snapped at a family member who is pestering you when you have a headache or had a bad day at work or just want a bit of alone time? Your dog is simply trying to communicate in a way that you will understand.

Never punish your dog for growling.

The biggest mistake that we can make is to punish our dogs for growling. A dog that has learned that he will be punished will stop growling. As a result, rather than giving you this important warning signal, they will go from subtle signals, straight to a bite.

DOG BODY LANGUAGE

Dogs speak with their bodies. Sometimes our dogs’ emotions are written all over their faces, so it is easy to determine how they are feeling. For example, almost anyone can tell which of these two dogs is happy that you are approaching.

Most of the time, however, signs that a dog is uncomfortable are much more subtle. Does this dog want you to approach or move away? How can you tell? This blog post will teach you what subtle signals to look for and how to interpret dog body language.

DOG BODY LANGUAGE: POSTURE

We can tell a lot about how our dogs are feeling by observing their posture and body position. A happy, relaxed dog has a loose, fluid posture.  

A dog that is anxious or unsure has a stiff posture.  

If a dog’s posture stiffens when you approach, it is an indication that the dog is not comfortable. He is asking you to give him more distance. Similarly, crouching and/or leaning away are very clear indicators that you are too close.

PERSONAL SPACE

Humans, dogs and other animals all have personal space bubbles. The size of any individual’s personal space bubble is unique and dependent on many factors. Think about how you feel when someone invades your personal space.

Just like humans, dogs can get very uncomfortable when their personal space is invaded. Dogs will show their discomfort with subtle body language. If you don’t listen and give them space, they will do one of three things: freeze and hope you just go away, flee from you or, as a last resort, bark and lunge in order to make you move away. The inability to flee is why many leashed, crated and tethered dogs bark and lunge when people and dogs approach.

DOG BODY LANGUAGE: THE TAIL

Study your dog’s normal tail carriage or the normal carriage for his breed. A stressed dog will carry its tail high above its back or very low. – sometimes to the point of tucking it between the back legs. Docked tails not only impair a dog’s ability to express his feelings, but also make it difficult for other dogs (and people) to read his body language.

“His tail is wagging, he must be friendly.”

Yes. A happy dog will wag its tail; however, an anxious or stressed dog will also wag its tail. Do not assume that a wagging tail is a signal that the dog wants to be petted. A relaxed dog will wag its tail in a wide, slow arc. A dog that is highly aroused will hold its tail high and wag its tail rapidly in a very small arch. Do not judge a dog by its tail wag alone. Always assess the entire dog.

DOG BODY LANGUAGE: THE EARS

Ear carriage changes with a dog’s emotions. Look at your dog’s normal ear carriage. When his ears move up and/or forward or if they drop down and/or back, he is feeling stress of some sort … anxious, unsure, concerned, etc..

As with tail docking, cropping a dog’s ears make reading dog body language difficult for people and other dogs.

DOG BODY LANGUAGE: THE FACE

A dog’s face displays a wealth of communication signals. The eyes, brows, mouth, tongue and even the whiskers will change with your dog’s emotional state. The signs of stress noted below can indicate that your dog is anxious, confused, concerned, frightened, etc. Regardless of the reason, when you see signs of stress in your dog, stop what you are doing and give him space.

THE BROW

Dogs will wrinkle their brow or raise their eyebrows when they are feeling stressed or unsure. This can lead to the classic “guilty look“. What this look really means is that your dog is feeling uncomfortable and unsure of a particular situation.

THE EYES

A relaxed dog’s eyes are generally more of an almond shape and have a soft look. An stressed dog may exhibit any of the following:

  • wide and round eyes
  • dilated pupils (the black circle in the middle of the eye is enlarged)
  • whale eye (an arc of white showing around the edges of the eyes)
  • hard” eyes (more of a hard stare).
  • squinting – used to avoid eye contact

THE MOUTH

A relaxed dog has a relaxed mouth – either open, often with tongue hanging out, or closed with loose, relaxed lips. A stressed dog will have a closed, stiff mouth. In these dogs, the lips will be tense as well – often forming a long straight line than may create wrinkles at the corner of the mouth. If pressed, the dog may lift their lips to expose their teeth. This may or may not be accompanied by a growl.

THE WHISKERS

The whiskers of a stressed dog will stick out prominently and be directed forward. The whisker bed will be raised (the area around each whisker will be very pronounced).

DOG BODY LANGUAGE: CALMING SIGNALS

When dogs feel anxious or are presented with stressful situations, they will perform behaviors meant to calm themselves or diffuse the situation. These behaviors are called calming signals or appeasement gestures. Calming signals include things like paw lifts, lip licking and yawns. When a dog is unsure, you will often see her avoiding eye contact either by turning her head to the side or by averting her eyes. Consequently, we often see calming signals when taking photos as pointing a camera/phone at a dog can make them uncomfortable.

STUDY THE ENTIRE DOG – NOT JUST ONE BODY PART

Some dogs will present multiple signals. On the other hand, some dogs will present only one or two signals. Remember – always judge the entire dog – not just one body part. A dog may be wagging its tail, but … How is he holding his tail? How fast is it wagging? What about his eyes and ears? Is his mouth closed and tense or open and relaxed?

Even puppies are speaking to us through their body language.

Watch this great video on body language.

Dog Body Language: Quiz 1

Which husky looks happier to see you at his gate?

  • A. Signals: open relaxed mouth, neutral ears, soft eyes, whiskers directed forward; This dog is exhibiting relaxed body language.
  • B. Signals: stiff posture, body directed forward, closed mouth with lips set in a straight line, whiskers directed forward, ears set back and down, hard eyes, high tail carriage; This dog is exhibiting stressed body language.
Dog Body Language: Quiz 2:

Which of these dogs look happy to be the recipient of human attention?

  • A. Signals: relaxed posture, open relaxed mouth, neutral ears, soft eyes; This dog is exhibiting relaxed body language.
  • B. Signals: stiff posture with body directed backward, wide round eyes with whale eye (difficult to see with the blue eyes), furrowed brow, ears pinned down and back, closed mouth with straight lips, whiskers directed forward; This dog is exhibiting stressed body language.
  • C. Signals: loose, relaxed posture, relaxed mouth, neutral ears; This dog is exhibiting relaxed body language.
  • D. Signals: stiff posture, closed mouth with straight lips, airplane ears, head turned away, whiskers directed forward; This dog is exhibiting stressed body language.
  • E. Signals: crouched posture, body directed away from the person, wide round eyes with whale eye, prominent whisker bed, closed mouth with straight lips, furrowed brow, ears pinned back; This puppy is exhibiting stressed body language.
  • F. Signals: stiff posture with body directed away from person, yawning, squinting eyes; This dog is exhibiting stressed body language.

The dogs in photos A and C are the only ones in this group with relaxed body language. Note that in both of these photos, the human is not constraining the dog and is respecting its personal space.

Dog Body Language: Quiz 3

Now, with your new knowledge of body language, how do you interpret this photo? Does the dog want you to come closer or move away? What body language signals are telling you this?

This dog is saying: Move away.

Signals: Tense posture directed backward, ears are pinned back and down, head is turned away, whale eye, tense closed mouth; paw lift.

Dog Body Language: Quiz 4

Go back through the rest of the photos in this blog. What other stress signals do you see each dog exhibiting?

77% of dog bites happen with a family or friend's dog. Now that you know better, do better. "Stop the 77"

RESOURCES

To learn more about dog body language:

  • Doggie Language by Lili Chin
  • On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas
  • Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide by Brenda Aloff
  • A Kids’ Comprehensive Guide to Speaking Dog!:  A fun, interactive educational resource to help the whole family understand canine communication by Niki Tudge
  • Family Paws
  • The Family Dog
Kerrie Hoar, M.S., CCPDT-KA, IAABC-ADT, FDM, FFCP
Kerrie Hoar, M.S., CCPDT-KA, IAABC-ADT, FDM, FFCP

Kerrie Hoar has a master’s degree in Biology and is a certified professional dog trainer and family dog mediator. She owns Crimson Hound, LLC dog training in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Turn Your Dog Walk Into A Sniff Walk

What makes for a great dog walk?  Is it a power walk through your neighborhood with your Fitbit tracking your every step?  Nope.  That is YOUR walk.  What your dog wants is an opportunity to just go where he wants to go and do what he wants to do. The ideal ‘walk’ for your dog is a time to just run free … time to just “dog” … to roll in the grass, to sniff, to dig, to chase critters ….  The term decompression walk was defined by Sarah Stremming as “a walk where the dog is allowed freedom of movement in nature”. Decompression time for your dog has the same benefits as it does for us humans.  Studies have shown that sniffing actually lowers your dog’s pulse rate and reduces their stress. 

The best experience for any dog is time spent off-leash.  If you plan to allow your dog to run off leash, there are some very important things to consider before you head out the door:  

  1. Are there ordinances in your area about off leash dogs?  If so, make sure that you are going to off-leash friendly areas.  Don’t be the dog owner that lets your dog off leash in on-leash only locations.  
  2. Make sure that your dog has a bomb-proof recall before letting your dog off leash in an un-enclosed space.  Nothing good is going to come from this.
  3. Be aware and respectful of others.  Keep this in mind and prevent your dog from harassing others (remember that bomb-proof recall in #2). Not every dog wants to be your dog’s friend and not every person is comfortable around dogs … and they have the right to enjoy that space without being harassed by an off-leash dog.  

But, what if you don’t have off-leash zones in your area, your dog doesn’t have a solid recall yet or she isn’t good with strange dogs or people?

Sniffspot is an online service that lists private “dog parks” that can be rented for solo use.  These spaces may be as simple as someone’s backyard or they could be acres and acres of fenced land.  Sniffspot is growing, but you won’t find spaces in every location.

No Sniffspots available in your area? No worries.

Even if you can’t find a safe space for a true off-leash experience, you can still get many of the benefits of off leash time through a more controlled Sniff Walk, or Sniffari. A sniff walk is a walk during which your dog is allowed the freedom to be a dog while still safely controlled with a harness and long line.

Sniff Walk How-To’s:

Equipment:

  • Long line.  A long line is just a extra long leash that comes in lengths anywhere from 10 to 100 feet. They are great for training recalls, but make the perfect sniff walk leash. You can purchase a long line or simply make your own. Tie a clip to one end of a length of rope to hook to your dog’s harness. Then tie a loop at the other end for a handle.
  • Harness.  A harness is much safer than a collar for any walk.  Look for a harness that allows full range of motion.  For example, harnesses with a band across the chest restrict shoulder movement.
  • Hands free leash system (optional). A hands-free belt to attach your long line to works great to free up your hands. Now you can dispense treats or handle the line to keep it from getting tangled.
  • Treat pouch with treats or kibble.  If your dog has never been on a sniff walk, you may need to toss a few treats into the grass/bushes to encourage him and let him know that it is okay to sniff. Instead of treats, toss the food bowl and take your dog’s meal along to scatter feed in the grass.
  • Poop bags. Clean up after your dog. Do not allow your dog to damage/destroy private or public property – including digging, crushing plants, etc.

I do not recommend using a retractable leash for several reasons:

  First, they are dangerous.  Many a dog owner or bystander can attest to retractable leash injuries such as rope burns, cuts, and even amputations.  If you drop the leash, many dogs are terrified by the handle “chasing” them – making them harder to catch or, worse, causing them into run into traffic in an effort to escape.  Finally, our goal is a relaxing walk and retractable leashes maintain a constant tension on the line which is not relaxing for the dog.

How do you find a safe space for a Sniff Walk? 

 If you live in a rural area, you probably don’t need to look too far to find a wonderful enclosed space for you dog to explore.  But what if you live in a more urban area?  Here is how you can locate a safe place for a sniffari.

  1. First, set Google Maps or Mapquest to ‘satellite’ mode and type your home address into the search box.
  2. Next, look for green spaces within easy walking or driving distance. Yes, you may need to drive a bit to find a good location.  
  3. Once you have located some potential spaces, check each one to determine if it will fit your needs.  On the map below, I have marked potential green spaces in my area.  
  4. Check land ownership and local ordinances. 
    • The red zones on the map are great spaces, but, sadly, off limits to dogs.  Check your local ordinances for parks and cemeteries. If dog friendly, these make great sniff zones. 
    • The purple and blue zones are all dog-friendly possibilities.  The two largest purple zones are filled with fantastic nature trails.  However, I have reactive dogs and these trails are often narrow with few opportunities to allow enough space for other dogs to pass by without triggering reactions.  Since point of a sniff walk is to allow your dog to decompress, these areas are not good options for reactive dogs. Be sure to keep these kind of things in mind when searching for sniff walk spaces.
    •  The little rectangle towards the top of the map is a tiny dog park.  On occasion, I have been able to get this space all to myself, but it not always open and is quite small.
  5. So, that leaves the blue zone. This is a university campus and just happens to tick all th boxes.  
  • Dog friendly
  • Easy walk from home
  • Plenty of green space
  • Plenty of space to allow my dogs to get the distance they need from triggers
  • Tons of great places to sniff

Throughout COVID many college campuses and other public spaces have been relatively quiet zones – a definite perk for those of us with reactive dogs.  When students and faculty are on campus, however, I simply time my walks for less active times of the day. In general, however, you won’t find owners out on sniff walks spending much time on the sidewalks. We are generally following our dogs across the lawns and checking out the bushes.  So it is not too hard to avoid the human crowds. 

So, now that we have the equipment and the space that we need, join us as we take our morning sniff walk!  

I choose to take our sniff walks in the morning and bring breakfast along in my treat pouch.  I use two-point attachment leashes – long leashes with clips at both ends and multiple rings to allow you to adjust the length of the lead.  These give me the versatility of having 4-foot leashes when walking through the neighborhood, and the ability to allow the full 8 feet of line for sniffing.

Sniff Walk Adventures
Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s off for a sniff walk we go!

Once on campus, I can let out the lines.  My 8-foot leashes don’t allow for as much freedom as a 15- or 30-foot long line. That said, they do allow me to take everyone out together and maintain control if we encounter groups of people on campus. It is also convenient for me to not have to carry along four separate long lines every day.  

Once I lengthen the leashes, the dogs are in charge.  

Sniff Walk Adventures
I think there is a bunny in here!
Sniff Walk Adventures
I’m sure it’s back in here somewhere!

We go wherever they take me and sniff whatever they want and for as long as they choose.  One exception: They are allowed to sniff the flowers, but not trample through the beds. 

Occasionally, I will toss out a handful of kibble in the grass for them to snuffle.  The dogs are in charge here as well. They choose the scatter spots by slowing down and looking back at me. Once they have finished their snuffling, we are off again.  

IMPORTANT

Do NOT try to scatter feed with multiple dogs in the same space without some prior training. Sign up for a consultation with me, or talk to your dog trainer about safety layers that can be used when working with multiple dogs. Never do this if any one of your dogs has even a hint of resource guarding tendencies.  Instead, either take your dogs for solo sniff walks or do scatter feeds back at home in separate spaces.

Sniff Walk Adventures
Watching the World Go By.

Remember, this is your dog’s walk.  You are on his clock and he gets to set the agenda.  Go with the flow, enjoy the sights and sounds of nature, take the opportunity to catch up on podcasts or listen to an audiobook … and enjoy !



Kerrie Hoar, M.S., CCPDT-KA, IAABC-ADT, FDM, FFCP
Kerrie Hoar, M.S., CCPDT-KA, IAABC-ADT, FDM, FFCP

Kerrie Hoar has a master’s degree in Biology and is a certified professional dog trainer and family dog mediator. She owns Crimson Hound, LLC dog training in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Toss the Food Bowl: Canine Enrichment with Food

Canine Enrichment with Food

The old saying “a tired dog is a good/happy dog” once meant that you should engage your dog in as much physical activity as possible to tire him out. At the time, we didn’t realize that we were just building a better athlete, while neglecting our dog’s mental health.

Research now shows that there are many other ways to “tire out your dog” and reduce boredom through various types of enrichment activities.

According to a 2009 study, “Non-domestic, stray and feral animals spend the majority of their time foraging for food. In addition, they must seek out or construct resting areas and avoid predators and other natural hazards. Pet animals on average spend less than 15 minutes per day eating because they do not have to forage for food. The majority of dog breeds were developed for some functional purpose (guarding, herding, hunting, etc.) yet few animals actually participate in these activities, leaving them with no constructive outlet for behavior patterns that are biologically generated.”  In fact, studies have indicated that “up to 60 percent of companion dogs don’t even get a regular walk.” (Canine Enrichment)

As early as the 1960’s, zookeepers were beginning to understand the need for enriching the lives of captive animals.  Increased enrichment has been shown to reduce stress in zoo and shelter animals, reduce reactivity and increase both physical and mental health.  In the 1970’s, Dr. Hal Markowitz, an early pioneer in captive animal behavior, defined the term enrichment as meaning “a synonym for ‘more like nature.’ ”  More recently, researchers in Sweden conducted a study with a group of beagles and found that “The experimental animals in our study were excited not only by the expectation of a reward, but also about realizing that they themselves could control their access to the reward.  These results support the idea that opportunities to solve problems, make decisions, and exercise cognitive skills are important to an animal’s emotional experiences and ultimately, its welfare.”

In a recently published book on this topic, Canine Enrichment for the Real World, authors Allie Bender and Emily Strong define the term as “Enrichment is learning what our dogs’ needs are and then structuring an environment for them that allows them, as much as is feasible, to meet those needs.”

Canine Enrichment

Canine enrichment is a broad term used to describe methods that enhance a dog’s life and meet its needs.  This includes its biological need for nutrition, shelter and medical care.  Besides basic husbandry, there are four other categories of enrichment – emotional, social, physical and mental.  

  • Emotional enrichment includes the love, trust and security of a safe and happy home.  Social enrichment is met through bonding and play with both humans and other dogs.  For human play, think things like fetch, tug, flirt poles, sprinkler games, bubbles and hide & seek.  
  • Physical enrichment is met through exercise.  E.g., hikes, parkour, sniff walks, running, playing, and many different types of dog sports.  
  • Mental enrichment is an activity whereby a dog’s mind is exercised through cognitive and sensory stimulation.  Mental and sensory stimulation can be accomplished through things like trick training, puzzles, music, nosework, play, new sights and sounds, etc. 

Dogs evolved as predators, foragers and scavengers.  Studies are showing us that 24/7 access to a full bowl of food day in and day out  is simply not healthy.  An alarming number of dogs are overweight or obese – which leads to health problems and a decreased lifespan. (For more information on the problem of obesity in dogs, visit this page.)  In addition, it is, simply put, boring.  Dogs don’t have much to do during the day – a quick potty break in the morning, a walk when you get home from work and, in between, hours of time with nothing to occupy their minds.  Bored dogs, just like bored kids, will invent ways to entertain themselves.  Boredom leads to behavioral problems – from barking and inappropriate chewing to separation anxiety and hyperactivity – and can even escalate to reactivity.

Food Enrichment

One easy way to meet many of your dog’s enrichment needs is through food enrichment.  Food enrichment satisfies your dog’s natural instinct to forage, slows down eating to aid digestion and reduce bloat, makes meal times more interesting for picky eaters, provides an energy outlet, reduces stress and anxiety, reduces inclination to chew, bark and dig, etc. In addition, it is a great way to keep your dog occupied after a surgery, injury or spay/neuter when physical activity must be limited.

Did you know that many professional dog trainers provide all of their dogs’ food through training?  These dogs never eat from a bowl.

You will hear us telling our clients to “toss the food bowl.”  We mean this quite literally.  Here are some ideas for how you can join us in tossing the food bowl and enriching your dog’s day through food.

How do I get started with food enrichment?
A good first step can be as simple as adding new flavors and textures to your dog’s meals.  Add a novel topper to your pup’s kibble – a scoop of yogurt, cottage cheese or pumpkin, cut up apple, pear or banana, freeze-dried liver bits or sardines.  When training with minimal distractions, try mixing some frozen green beans, baby carrots or blueberries in with your regular treats.

Now that we have your attention, let’s work toward tossing those food bowls altogether and letting your dog engage in food enrichment activities instead.


Worried about how much food your dog will be getting if you start adding more treats and additional food-related activities to your dog’s day?

Simply take all of the food that your dog is going to get during the day and put it in a single container. This is what you have to work with throughout the day. Use some for training and some for enrichment games. When using non-kibble additions, simply calculate this into the day’s portion and remove kibble to accommodate these new items.


Be Sure to Feed Only Dog-Safe Foods


Before starting any food enrichment activity, be sure that you have a list of foods that are not safe to feed.  Read all ingredients lists and consult your list of unsafe foods before using any new food type or new product brand.

https://www.aspcapro.org/resource/people-foods-pets-should-never-eat

https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/nutrition/human-foods-dogs-can-and-cant-eat/

Foods to ALWAYS Avoid!!

Chocolate
Grapes & Raisins
Macadamia nuts
Yeast dough
ANYTHING containing Xylitol

Xylitol is used as a sweetener, as a medication and as a way to prevent tooth decay and dry mouth.  It is HIGHLY toxic to dogs.  Be sure to check labels in your household for items containing xylitol and store them where your dog is not able to get to them.

https://www.preventivevet.com/xylitol-products-toxic-for-dogs

Food Enrichment Activities

Food enrichment activities should always be done under close supervision.  Take the time to introduce your dog to new activities and teach him how to do it.  When your dog is finished with the activity, pick it up and put it away so that your dog does not destroy or ingest it.  “Kong” type toys are generally safe for unsupervised crate time.  If you are absolutely certain that your dog is not going to ingest things, some food dispenser toys and cardboard tubes/boxes could be another option for your dog.

Rotate activities and toys to keep things new and exciting for your pup.

If you have a multi-dog household, they should be separated for food enrichment activities.  This will reduce resource guarding and avoid possible fights.  Working alone allows your dog to slow down and really enjoy the activity – rather than having it be a race to finish first.  If you plan to do activities without separating your dogs, be sure that you are supervising them closely and watching for any body language that may indicate a problem.

Puzzle (Slow Feed) Bowls

Canine Enrichment with Food

Puzzle bowls are the most basic type of food enrichment.  They work well for dogs that are just starting out.  Outward Hound, Northmate and PAW5 all make puzzle bowls.  If you don’t want to purchase a puzzle bowl, try putting a ball or two in with your dog’s regular kibble to make an obstacle to work around or substitute something like a muffin tin.  You can even add water or diluted broth to their food bowl and freeze.

Food Stuffer Toys

Canine Enrichment with Food

Kong-type food stuffing toys are one of the most popular food activities for dog owners.   If you shop sales, you can pick up a variety of stuffing toys.  Once you have several, prepare  them ahead of time and pop them  in the freezer – then just pull one out anytime you need it.   Kong, Busy Buddy, SodaPup and West Paw are just a few of the companies that produce a wide variety of stuffing toys.

**Be sure to pick the correct size and type for your dog.

How to Stuff a Stuffer:

  1. If your dog is a beginner, start out by filling the cavity with kibble or dry treats and capping it off with some wet food, squeeze cheese or peanut butter.  The wet topper will keep your pup interested until they reach the kibble jackpot.  
  2. Once your pup has the hang of it, try filling with kibble that has been soaked in water or broth or just mix the kibble with wet stuff  (pumpkin, yogurt, baby food, peanut butter, etc.).  
  3. Pack it loosely at first and then start packing it tighter.  
  4. Finally, once you have an advanced dog, you are ready to start freezing it.  If you are not able to freeze the entire toy, you can freeze things in ice cube trays or small silicone molds and add this to your stuffer toy, along with kibble or ingredients.

What do I use to stuff a stuffer?

Canine Enrichment with Food

You can mix wet and dry ingredients – try peanut butter, apple sauce and banana chunks or yogurt, pumpkin and green beans or soak dry kibble till soggy and mix with cottage cheese and apple chunks.

For more ideas, go to the Kong Company – or simply search the internet for kong stuffing recipes.

DIY Stuffer Toy Enrichment Ideas

  • Hoof/Horn/Bone – If you are like me, you have a variety of hooves, horns and bones lying around the house. Why not try using them as stuffing toys.
  • Paper Towel or Toilet Paper Tube – You can put kibble in a tube and either fold the ends over or cap the ends with packing paper. You can also fill the tube with kibble, cap both ends with wet ingredients and then freeze.
  • Kitchen Items – muffin tins, ice cube trays, old measuring cups, etc.
  • PVC – Pick up a pvc elbow or tee, stuff it and freeze it – or just smear some peanut butter all around the inside surface.
  • Pupsicle 
    • Try putting a few treats/veggies/fruit into ice cube trays and fill with dilute broth. Freeze and then give a cube to your dog, add one to his bowl, put one in a kong or even float a couple of cubes in a bowl of water or even in a kiddy pool on a hot day.
    • Put treats/veggies/fruit and broth in a paper cup and stick in a milk bone or carrot that will act as your pupsicle stick. Freeze, unmold and serve.
    • Same concept, but with an ice cream container. Freeze and unmold in the yard on a hot day.  If you have a large enough container, you can even freeze a ball or other toys into the mold.

Licki Mats

Canine Enrichment with Food

Licki Mats are silicone squares with ridges that will hold food in the crevices.  Smear yogurt, peanut butter or pumpkin in the recesses, stick in some kibble, cut up fruit or veggies and either feed as is or freeze.  You can use anything with a textured surface as a licki mat – silicone ice cube trays or candy molds, a grease spatter guard, silicone hot pads, etc.

Scatter Feeding

Dogs are natural foragers and scatter feeding is a perfect way to tap into that instinctive behavior.  This is as simple as taking a portion of your dog’s kibble and scattering it in the yard or on the floor and let him sniff it out.   Generally, scatter feeding can be done with multiple dogs in the same space.  However, be sure that you keep an eye on your dogs’ body language for any signs of tension. It is always safest to start by separating the dogs with something like an x-pen until you are confident that there will be no fighting

Variation on Scatter Feeding:  Change things up by putting your dog in another room and then set up a scatter trail.  Start near the doorway that your dog will enter and make a trail of treats to lead your dog to another area or room where you have done a scatter or placed a stuffer toy. Another easy idea that you can do while watching television in the evening: Grab your dog’s dinner and toss it a couple of pieces at a time around the room and ask him to “Find It”.

Snuffle Mat

Snuffle mats come in many shapes and sizes and satisfy your dog’s need for foraging and mental stimulation.  A standard snuffle mat resembles a rug with very long shag.   The idea is to tuck kibble or treats down into the mat and then let your dog snuffle around to find them.

To start out, tuck a few pieces of kibble into the mat and scatter some over the top.  Once your pup understands how the game works, you can hide the kibble deep down in the snuffle mat.  A lot of dogs will try to disassemble the mat to see if there are any stray treats hiding deep inside.  If you have such a pup, be sure to pick up the snuffle mat as soon as your dog has finished the game and put it away for next time.

Variations on the Snuffle Mat:  You can turn a basket with holes in it into a snuffle basket.  Take a few leftover pieces of fleece, roll a few pieces of kibble or treat up in them and put those in a box.  Stuff the rolled up pieces of fleece into a Hol-ee Roller ball.


Make Your Own Snuffle Mat
A simple snuffle mat can be constructed in an evening.

Materials:
– plastic sink mat
– 1-2 fleece blankets or about 1 ½ – 2 yards of fleece
– scissors or rotary cutter

Directions:
Cut the fleece into strips, about 1″ wide and 8 to 10” long.  Thread a strip through each hole in the sink mat and tie it off.  Make sure that you have tied a strip through every single hole.  Viola! – snuffle mat!


Other DIY Snuffling Activities

Towel Roll

Canine Enrichment with Food

Lay out a towel, scatter kibble or treats all over it and then roll it up and let your dog unroll it.  To make it more difficult, try tying the roll in a knot, hiding it somewhere in the house or putting it in a box with the flaps closed.  You can also scatter treats along one half, fold the towel lengthwise, scatter more treats on top and then roll it up.


Variations on Towel Roll
 – Use an old pair of jeans and roll treats up in each leg.  Spread out a blanket, scatter kibble on top and then either accordion fold the blanket or grab the center and twist to create folds and swirls to hide the treats.

Cardboard Box

Simply take an empty cardboard box, toss in kibble or a few treats, and turn your dog loose.  Once your dog has the hang of this game, fill the box with packing paper, toilet paper or paper towel tubes or tennis balls.  You can use kibble or treats, veggies or fruit or even drop in a frozen stuffer toy.  To add a bit of a challenge, fold the bottom of a TP tube, drop in a few pieces of kibble, then fold the top to make a little packet. Toss these into the box. For even more of a challenge, close up the flaps of the box. Note: If your dog ingests this type of material, do not attempt this activity if you are not able to supervise your dog. This is a great activity for dogs who enjoy the act of ripping up or dissecting toys. The act of ripping up the box goes a long way in meeting the needs of these dogs.

Baskets

Canine Enrichment with Food

Do you have a laundry basket or a plastic tub lying around?  Toss in some kibble and top with balls.  If you have a large enough container, toss in some empty water/soda bottles.  Be sure to take of the caps and plastic ring to remove any choking hazards.

Cones

Take a set of small plastic cones, dishes or plastic cups and set them up around the room.  Place kibble or treats underneath them and let your dog work out how to get to the treats.  Once she has the hang of it, try putting kibble under only a few of them, then let her figure out which ones are hiding the kibble.

Muffin Tin

Canine Enrichment with Food

Put some treats in the cups of a muffin tin and cover them with tennis balls, toys or even silicone muffin liners.  Once your dog has the idea, place the whole thing in a basket or a box the just fits the tin.  When the dog pushes the balls off the cups, they will keep rolling back over, making it a bit more challenging.  

Egg Carton

Put some treats in the cups of an egg carton and close up the carton.  To make it more challenging, you can tape the carton shut, roll the treats in bits of packing paper or scraps of polar fleece and then put those parcels in the egg carton cups.

Paper Towel and Toilet Paper Tubes

Turn these into little treasure packets by folding one end, dropping in a few pieces of kibble or treats and then folding the other end closed. You can hide these around the house or tuck them into boxes or baskets. If you dog tends to swallow large chunks, start with paper towel tubes for a larger packet and supervise so that you can teach him how to rip open the packet to get to the treasure. Do not use wet, oily or sticky food stuffs like hot dog, cheese or peanut butter as it encourages your dog to eat the cardboard that has that oily, sticky food residue on it.

Purchased Enrichment Toys and Puzzles

Puzzles

Canine Enrichment with Food

There is a huge variety of puzzles for dogs on the market. Many of them are labeled with a rating of how difficult/advanced they are.

Purchased Toys


There are many different food dispensing toys on the market:  Kong Wobbler, Buster Cube, Tug a Jug, Kibble Nibble, Twist a Treat, Kong Gyro … and the list goes on and on.  Some are very simple balls with a hole in it.  Others have a plastic maze inside or other mechanism to slow the dispensing rate and make the toy more difficult.  

If you want to slow down dispensing rate, you can use larger treats/kibble that don’t fall out as easily.  Some toys that come apart have enough space to put a ball inside.  As the toy tips, the ball will cover the hole occasionally and slow the dispensing of treats.

DIY Food Dispensing Toys

Water Bottle or Milk Jug

Remove the lid and plastic ring (these are choking hazards), wash out the bottle and then drop in a few treats.  Your dog will have a great time trying to get the treats out.

Bottle Tipping Activity

You will need a couple of empty milk jugs and a curtain/tension rod. Thread the tension rod through the jug handles and then hang the whole thing in a doorway at a level between your dog’s chest and eye level.  Drop some treats in the jugs and show your pup how to tip the jug to get treats to drop.  You can also use 2-liter soda bottles.  Drill two holes on opposite sides just above the label.  Then thread the tension rod through the holes.

Clothesline Veggies

Take a long piece of string, yarn or fishing line and string on a few chunks of fruit or veggies, spacing them out along the line. Hang this at your dog’s eye level (e.g., in a doorway, between cabinets or between trees in the yard) and let your pup figure out how to get them off the string.  Watch your dog closely to be sure that he does not eat the string!

PVC Roller

Canine Enrichment with Food

Pick up an 8 to 12” piece of ~2″ diameter PVC pipe and a couple of caps. Drill a few holes in the pipe, just a bit larger than your kibble/treats.  Sand the edges of the holes until there are no rough edges.  Put in some treats/kibble, cap the ends and let your dog roll it to release treats.  If you want to be a bit fancier, use the pvc pipe, one regular cap, a threaded end and a threaded cap.  You can use pvc glue to attach the regular cap on one end of the pipe and the threaded cap on the other.  Now you just need to unscrew the end, drop in treats, screw it back on and it is ready to go.

Hide and Seek

Fill multiple toys. Put your dog in another room, hide the toys, and then turn your dog loose.  This can work well when you leave the house for the day as long as you use toys that your dog can’t/won’t ingest.  If your dog will ingest toys, try doing a snuffle trail that leads them to a frozen kong or other safe toy. You could also hide pieces of kibble or treats inside boxes or other containers and place them around the room.

Sensory Maze or Obstacle Course

On a day when you can’t get out with your dog, try putting together everything you have learned and set up a sensory maze or obstacle course.  Use x-pens, boxes or pieces of cardboard to set up a maze or obstacle course for your dog and fill it with enrichment activities and obstacles.  

Using Enrichment as a Calming Activity

Food enrichment activities can also be used to calm your dog during stressful situations.  Counter conditioning works by associating something scary with something that your dog enjoys.  He will learn to like (or at least tolerate) the scary thing since it means something good is about to happen.  

Is your dog stressed during a bath?  Smear peanut butter on your bathtub surround so you dog can lick it during a bath.  They also make a licki bone with suction cups that sticks to walls, floors, etc.  Also try lining the tub with a towel before adding water, as some dogs are more scared of the slippery surface than they are of getting a bath.
Does your dog hate having her nails clipped?  Pull one of those frozen kongs out of the freezer and give them a lick or a treat after every nail.
Is your dog afraid of the vet?  Bring a licki mat along.  A groomer mit with rubber teeth serves as a good portable licki mat. 

A mentally enriched dog is a happy (and tired) dog, so Toss that Food Bowl!!


For a million and one other food enrichments ideas, check out of these facebook pages: 

Puzzle Dog

Canine Enrichment

DIY Canine Enrichment Toys

Beyond the Bowl – Canine Enrichment


Resources

Salonen, Milla, et al.  “Prevalence, comorbidity and breed differences in canine anxiety in 13,700 Finnish pet dogs”.  Nature,  vol. 10, article 2962 (2020).

Haug, Lore Il, DVM, MS, DACVB.  “Enrichment in dogs and cats”.  DVM360 Kansas City Proceedings, August 1, 2009.

Ragen McGowan, et al.  “Positive Affect and Learning:  Exploring the ‘Eureka Effect’ in dogs”.  Animal Cognition, vol. 17:  577-587 (2014).

Herron, M. E., T. M. Kirby-Madden and L. K. Lord.  “Effects of Environmental Enrichment on the Behavior of Shelter Dogs”.  Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, vol. 244 (6): 687-692 (2014)

Bekoff, Marc.  “Working for Food Enriches Dogs’ Lives and Break the Boredom”.  Psychology Today.  May8, 2019.

Bender, Allie and Emily Strong.  Canine Enrichment for the Real World.  Dogwise Publishing. (2019).

Kelly, Shay.  Canine Enrichment.  (2019)

“Mental exercise tires a dog physically more than physical exercise does.”

Dr. Ian Dunbar
Kerrie Hoar, M.S., CCPDT-KA, IAABC-ADT, FDM, FFCP
Kerrie Hoar, M.S., CCPDT-KA, IAABC-ADT, FDM, FFCP

Kerrie Hoar has a master’s degree in Biology and is a certified professional dog trainer and family dog mediator. She owns Crimson Hound, LLC dog training in La Crosse, Wisconsin.